Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)
MR BRIAN BENDER CB AND MRS JULIE FLINT
WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002
80. Let us try on another one then, on "Land Use and Rural Affairs, Support for countryside and wildlife", that is absolutely central; now you go, in 2000-01, from £295 million, into 2001-02, so you know what the plans are for this, you have got £408 million Estimated outturn: why the increase?
(Mrs Flint) I think that, rather than going into the detail of individual lines, there is a need for us to produce updated Tables for these. This links to an earlier point about how the information is stored on the Treasury database; the information is stored objectively, and we have tried, in accordance with Treasury guidelines, to produce this information according to functions, and in mapping those figures from one format to another some problems have been introduced.
Mr Jack: You put it in very Delphic terms; but these documents are, if you like, the public window on what you have done, what you are hoping to do and how much it has cost. And here we are now, because we have the privilege and benefit of asking you these questions; there will be people who have paid money for this Report and will be sitting there believing every number you have put down. Now, if I had bought this document, and I had read the results that you have just given, I would ask for my money back; because I have been sold a pup, I have not actually got what I thought I was being sold, which was a window of accuracy on what has been happening. Do you not think, if nothing else, you ought now to publish on your website, if you like, a lot more information that refers to this Report, so that people could have at least an electronic corrigendum, to bring us up to speed on what this is all about? Because I think it is a pretty dire performance, that we are here saying, "Well, you know, it's the difference between objective and function, and I'm not sure about this number and that, and there's been an error and a mis-timing with the Treasury." I appreciate Government is complicated, but this is supposed to be an accurate statement about your Department, and it is not presenting a particularly accurate picture. Let us just try you on another one then; well, the Chairman tells me, as I get to my task, I will perhaps leave that, and just move on to the question of the science budget, if I may, because I think we have made the point that there are a lot of areas of detail. Can you tell the Committee how much DEFRA is going to spend on scientific research this year, and whether that is up or down on last year, and perhaps you could give us some indication, if not now but in the future, about the five- and 15-year position, so that, for a science-based Department, we might understand whether you are spending on science more or less than in previous periods?
81. And I think making the distinction between science, as such, and monitoring and surveillance, which I think is also included in the science budget?
(Mr Bender) Well, taking it all together; your point is right, Chairman, there are a number of aspects to it. Taking it all together, it is about the same as it was last year, maybe a tiny bit down. The total R&D aspect of it for the current financial year is just over £130 million in programme and just over £41/2 million in admin. across the Department; and there is some capital as well, just over £71/2 million. We have endeavoured, following the 2000 Spending Review, to keep the science spend constant, it has not been easy but it is something that, quite clearly, our Ministers attach importance to; there may be a slight dip this year, for reasons of overall pressures, but it is something we will be coming back to, in the light of the Spending Review, I hope.
82. Given that science underpins everything you do, is that an entirely satisfactory situation, bearing in mind the still large number of unanswered questions on things like BSE, the work that will come no doubt out of the inquiries on foot and mouth, huge questions which continue to be asked about the marine environment, in its many and various ways; one could go on? It does seem as if you are treading water, and certainly in real terms it sounds almost as if you are going backwards?
(Mr Bender) First of all, I would like to say, and I am sure the Committee would agree with this, the total spend is not the sole criterion, and I think we refer, somewhere in the paper, to the fact that we are reviewing our science agencies to actually get a better handle on what it is that the Government, or the Department, wants from them. Secondly, the appointment of the new Chief Scientific Adviser was intended as part of a signal to drive up the quality of the science in the Department. So this is not simply a matter of the volume one spends but what one spends it on and how good the quality is; and, I am sure the Committee would agree, that is crucial. On the actual spend, it is as I described it; we will be looking at future plans in the light of the Spending Review. The scientific underpinning of the Department is important, as you said, Mr Jack.
Chairman: And, indeed, essential to the whole thrust of where you want agriculture to go; things like input minimisation, for example, clearly depend very much on scientific research.
Mr Simpson: You have outlined, Mr Bender, and the Committee appreciates this, that you have moved from MAFF to DEFRA, you have had a lot of external problems, but, I did wonder, did you do yourself any briefing before you came in front of this Select Committee? Because, I suspect that, if you had been a middle-ranking civil servant and come in front of you, as the Permanent Secretary, being unable to answer questions in minutiae, but pretty fundamental questions, about a report, remember I did refer to this as a brochure and it is looking more and more like a brochure, certainly, in my background in Defence, this would have been regarded as a first rehearsal, rather than the actual presentation. The worrying thing about this is, not that we can be here to score, as it were, easy points off you, but there are people outside, farmers, people involved in the environment, etc., who rely upon the accuracy and knowledge of your Department, and you have, unfortunately, totally and utterly, undermined that. And if it were not a question of time, I would reluctantly suggest that we actually stop this Committee now and that we reprogramme our examination of you and your Department in perhaps two or three weeks' time, but that may be out of order, Mr Chairman.
Chairman: We are moving on, our next inquiry is, what is the purpose of DEFRA, and, when we have worked that out, is it engineered to deliver it; so, in that sense, that inquiry follows naturally from this one, so this is a sort of hors d'oeuvre for that. So, in that sense, you get your wish. So the answer is, no, we are not deferring it, but what follows after it is absolutely an essential continuation from it.
83. Can I look at one specific area of finance, which comes on the back of Michael Jack's questioning, and look at some of the hard decisions you have taken. Certainly, in terms of some of the offices, there are some pretty difficult financial outcomes of this year's Spending Review. What I am particularly interested in is what is happening with the State Veterinary Service, on the back of foot and mouth, and, more particularly, the pressures I have in my area with Bovine TB. Could you confirm, and I know I am not necessarily interested in numbers, but could you confirm that there is now an attempt to rebuild the State Veterinary Service, and really say how that is being coped with, given that there are financial pressures on DEFRA at the moment?
(Mr Bender) There are financial pressures across the Department. The total administration budget of the Department this year is almost exactly the same, in cash terms, as it was last year, before any account is taken of the pay increases and other aspects; therefore, we have had a cake to divide up, and take some tough choices, and that has involved some prioritisation. The State Veterinary Service has a budget, there are discussions under way with the Treasury at the moment about whether, for some aspects of its work, that can be added to. I and Ministers take very seriously, as we must do, the operation of the SVS. I think the Committee had a letter from the Department recently about where we are on TB testing, as a specific; the backlog of tests resulting from FMD has been reduced but is still there, it has not disappeared, and great efforts are continuing on that.
84. Can I just have some clarification that we are rebuilding the State Veterinary Service, because I am sure that all the reports are going to point to the fact that it was in a parlous state on the outbreak of foot and mouth?
(Mr Bender) I am not sure I understand the basis of the question of rebuilding. The number of professionally-qualified vets has not altered significantly in the last few years; there are pressures in particular parts of the country, there is a recruitment and retention point, that I think was in the note that came across yesterday evening, in the South East, there is clearly a workload and morale problem, following foot and mouth disease, and there are some important issues, obviously, in relation to how one ramps up resources at times of crisis. All this is being worked on as part of the responsibility of the new Director General of Operations and Service Delivery, to ensure that we have a State Veterinary Service fit for purpose.
85. Sustainable development, the concept of sustainability, is clearly a vital one for the new Department. Working for the Essentials of Life, the earlier document, has "Our vision" on its first page, I think, and says there: "Through the practice of sustainable development, economic, environmental and social, we will achieve our vision." And the Secretary of State, in the introduction to the Annual Report, in her "Foreword" to it, talks about sustainable development as the unifying concept that runs throughout all the Department does, and says the challenge is to turn the concept into reality. Now you mentioned, much earlier this morning, a document published yesterday, I think; now is that the Sustainable Development Strategy?
(Mr Bender) It is DEFRA's Sustainable Development Strategy.
86. Which was promised in the Annual Report?
(Mr Bender) That is correct; and it was published yesterday, and I will make sure the Committee gets hard copies of it.
87. Good; it would be helpful for us to have that, I think. Was there any delay in producing that strategy?
(Mr Bender) No. We are only, I think, the second Department in Government to have produced its own Sustainable Development Strategy, I think DTI did it some time ago. It was a proposal that the Secretary of State made, a decision she made last summer, and it has required, again, picking up an earlier question one of the Committee members asked about, some working right across the Department, because this is partly outward-facing, in terms of what we are going to do out there in society. And this document contains 22 DEFRA indicators of progress; but, in order to make it happen, it actually needs to win hearts and minds inside the Department, so that actually everybody in the Department recognises that this is the central theme of the Department's work, including their own work, in animal health, in farming, as well as in environment protection. So it may have taken a few weeks longer than we had anticipated, but it is more or less on track.
88. We do not have the benefit of having seen that document yet, but, from what you have said, we can assume, can we, that within the organisation itself everyone is signed up to that Strategy?
(Mr Bender) Well, within the organisation, the organisation itself is signed up to this Strategy; making it happen, making it real, is a hearts and minds exercise across the thousands of people in the organisation. And part of the delivery of the Strategy is actually to have training programmes, to build it into staff competencies and skills, to have seminars, and so on, in the Department, to make it a reality for the individual desk officer in the Department.
89. In a note to this Committee, Professor Kerry Turner referred to the Sustainable Development Commission, which the Government set up two years ago, in 2000, or thereabouts, and his comment on that Commission is that it has been slow to make an impact, it has little public profile, that, while it has attempted to influence policy at a high level, it has had limited success. Would you agree with that view?
(Mr Bender) It is a difficult concept, sustainable development, and it actually means the way we use resources, and some tough trade-off choices for the future. If we take an area like climate change, the country has made significant progress on the way it uses greenhouse gases, carbon, over the past few years; the Sustainable Development Commission has been a force for pushing Departments and pushing the Government in the right direction. I think, with any new organisation, it takes some time to make an impact; but I am not sure Jonathon Porritt would recognise the description.
90. One of the problems identified, once again, by Professor Turner, is that there appears to be no real link, and indeed no budget, the comment is, for making links between what the Sustainable Development Commission might be doing at a national level and those regional and local, for instance, sustainable development round tables, which are being set up. I wonder if the Strategy that has now been published seeks, as one of its objectives, to overcome that?
(Mr Bender) It does not address that particular point, because this is looking at specifically within DEFRA's own work areas what it needs to do. The separate, related question is that DEFRA, as the Departmental Report says, is responsible for promoting sustainable development across Government, and, although this is not a direct response to the point you have just made, one of the features of the current Spending Review is that the Treasury are having bilateral discussions with individual Departments, not only about their spending plans, which is the normal process, but about the extent to which their spending plans incorporate sustainable development, Department by Department. This is a theme which DEFRA cannot deliver alone, needs to ensure it is delivered across Government, is working with the Treasury to do it, and making real progress on it will depend on many other Departments, like Transport, like DTI, it is relevant, obviously, to Planning, in what is now the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and it does need action at local level, and the Government Offices have a role on local sustainable development activities.
91. So the Comprehensive Spending Review might see Gordon Brown providing the resources to finance what is clearly the major unifying theme not only of your Department but of Government itself? But we wait to see.
(Mr Bender) I could not possibly comment.
Mr Lepper: No; of course not. Thank you.
92. Mr Bender, as you know, the main study undertaken by this Committee, which will be published in about a month's time, is the future of UK agriculture. Looking at the annual brochure again, I am struck by the fact that the core element of your Department, in terms of problems that you face, impact on the environment and the amounts of monies that you deal with, is one of the smallest elements within the brochure, that is agriculture. Why is so little of this Report concentrating on agriculture?
(Mr Bender) I come back to the point I made earlier, that we tried to make the Report more concise and more of an overview. It needs to sit alongside other publications, including the document that the Government published before Easter, that followed up the Policy Commission on Food and Farming, and that was a basis for engagement with stakeholders to carry forward where the Don Curry Policy Commission's recommendations were, and that was published in late March. So this is not the sole statement on this issue, there is, certainly and self-evidently, a lot of work going in, across the Department, as well as in other Departments and out there with stakeholders, on the future of farming, and moving towards what the Secretary of State intends to be a publication in the autumn on the future strategy, and obviously we wait to see what the Committee will say on this.
93. I can understand that, but agriculture is the core element of your business, in terms of money and in terms of your problems; it is rather like the Ministry of Defence producing an Annual Report that somehow did not mention major commitments in Afghanistan, it would just appear to be strange. And I would put to you, I understand what you are saying, that the impression is given to people involved in the widest possible agricultural sector, and that includes the food industry, it includes many of the Non-Governmental Organisations, the big debate which you are involved in, that it is a relatively low priority within your Department; in other words, that we are getting a lot of mood music, we are getting a lot of things that are not central to your business, as a Department? And it is just that, certainly I, and I think others who have read it, would have expected this not necessarily to have dominated your Report but that it should have been central to it; and you cannot just sort of slip off to other studies, the Curry Report, etc., this core element?
(Mr Bender) I take note of the comment and criticism of the balance in the Report, and I can certainly assure the Committee that one of the most important documents the Department produces in the period ahead, which will receive a lot of attention from the Secretary of State, Ministers and top officials, will be this strategy document. And it is occupying a lot of attention now; it is hugely important.
94. And this strategy document will not just be management Newspeak, it will be a properly thought out framework, it will actually have things that need to be implemented and dates whereby they will be achieved, will it?
(Mr Bender) That is my hope and intention; exactly what it contains is still under discussion, but it will be the Government's definitive response to the issues raised in Sir Don Curry's Policy Commission Report.
95. I understand that. I would like to hear "That is what I intend delivering." I think a lot of people outside have heard about hopes and intentions and the vagueness that we have had in front of the Committee today.
(Mr Bender) It is what I intend delivering.
Mr Simpson: Good. Mr Bender, thank you very much.
96. The other surprising area which has, if you like, an absence, which I think some of us find a bit disappointing, is the whole rural domain. Now I know, in Working for the Essentials of Life, there is a chapter there, but I would have thought, in this Report, one of the good stories that the Department could be talking about is the work in progress it has, with its own Minister, to set out a whole new vision for the countryside, in very practical terms, as distinct from what my colleague was talking about with regard to agriculture. Why was there so little? And I know you are going to say "We had to leave out some things," but this is good news. Many of us are impressed by some of the things that you intend to do, we could be critical about how it is being delivered, but the vision is actually very exciting; and we have set up this Ministry and called it Rural Affairs, on the end of Environment and Food. What would your observation be in regard to that comment?
(Mr Bender) I think there are two sets of issues here. One is, I think, a number of the comments and criticisms that members of the Committee have made today give me the clear impression that the Committee thinks, whatever other faults, problems, there are with the Report, we have overdone the conciseness on it, we have been too brief. Now, if that is the Committee's view, we will take that very carefully into account for next year. Plainly, one of the central planks and priorities of the Department is to promote thriving rural communities, thriving rural economies, and therefore the combination of rural economic regeneration, rural economic performance and rural deprivation, rural public services. The starting-point for that was the Rural White Paper, interim action along the way, with the various rural recovery plans that were published towards the end of the year, post foot and mouth. As I think I said earlier, we are working up now, I hope, some new targets that will help us measure better our performance on both rural economic activity and rural services; and there is a lot of action going on out there, with a whole range of partners, because, as with sustainable development, this is not something that DEFRA alone can do, but DEFRA needs to work with a lot of people, both out there in the rural communities and other Government Departments, to ensure it happens. And there is a Cabinet Committee on that, chaired by Margaret Beckett, at central government level.
97. Is a third of your Department's budget and personnel and activity dedicated to forestry?
(Mr Bender) It is not my Department.
98. But the overview of it; is a third of your activity involved in forestry? The reason why I ask this is, a third of your Annual Report is dedicated to forestry, and my colleague Mr Simpson made the point that agriculture is a core element of your Department, yet it has a few pages. But why was there a decision that, in a document that you say you wanted to have an overview of and you wanted it to be more concise, a third of the Report is dedicated to the Forestry Commission?
(Mr Bender) I think I would only repeat the point I made earlier, it may have been Mr Simpson who asked it, I forget, that this was a matter of reconciling conflicting advice and opinions on what the content of this Report should be, and there had to be a significant section, I think it is excessively long, and I accept the point that the balance is not right.
99. I would also think that it is not just excessively long, it is excessively vague, in that bit; because, if you have got 28 pages dedicated to the Forestry Commission, why are there no details about the Forestry Commission's Management Board, in Chapter Seven?
(Mr Bender) I am not the Accounting Officer for the Forestry Commission; it has its own Accounting Officer.